NEW YORK -- If you've been dying to visit a Third World country but possess neither the money nor the free time to make the trip, your worries are over. Thanks to five men sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court, the Third World has come to you.
The groundwork was laid years ago, when businessmen and their politician-employees made a conscious decision to deny Americans the basics of life in a modern industrialized society. Kids smart enough to gain admission to college in Germany, a country we supposedly beat in World War II, worried only about passing exams and cranking out essays; we Americans ran up student loans and worked late nights to pay ever-skyrocketing tuition to for-profit universities. When Frenchman and Mexicans and Chinese became ill, they received free medical care; Americans routinely died because they couldn't afford medicine. Somehow the businessmen and the politicians pulled off the greatest scam of recorded history: They convinced citizens of the wealthiest, most productive nation on Earth to sign the same exact social contract as those of the poorest backwater dumps.
Nevertheless, we Americans continued to take pride in our political system. As long as you were 18 years of age, had never been convicted of a felony, and could convince your boss to let you out of work before 8 p.m., you could choose between two closely aligned political parties at your local voting booth. We might have the fewest vacation days and the worst retirement system in the world, but we had a voice in determining our future.
That ended, of course, in December 2000. A rogue Supreme Court majority overthrew the Constitution -- which gives control of elections to the states -- and ordered the state of Florida to ignore uncounted votes. For the first time since the British defeat at Yorktown, Americans are led by an unelected, self-appointed strongman. The U.S. now possesses the same exact political system as such Third World countries as Somalia, Congo, Afghanistan and Cuba.
With a minor switch in the players, another rogue Supreme Court 5-4 majority closed the deal on April 24: "The question is whether the Fourth Amendment forbids a warrantless arrest for a minor criminal offense, such as a misdemeanor seat-belt violation punishable only by a fine," formerly liberal Justice David Souter wrote for the majority. "We hold that it does not." The dissent noted that the decision "has potentially serious consequences for the everyday lives of Americans." Well, duh. The constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure is now dead. The police can arrest and jail an American citizen for any crime whatsoever -- even a minor traffic offense. "The practical effect of the ruling is that police officers can exercise 'extremely poor judgment' and harass citizens for pointless reasons -- and those citizens are without legal redress," said Timothy Lynch, director of the Project on Criminal Justice at the Cato Institute.
Even more than last December's subversion of republican democracy, this revolutionary decision has created a de facto police state; the most frequent impact of the power of the state on the life of an individual occurs when flashing lights appear in a rear-view mirror.
With the exception of a few outposts in the West and South, it's unlikely that cops will begin applying their new sweeping powers right away. But even the most liberal police departments will be sorely tempted to act as roadside judges and juries. It's a funny thing about power: Intimidation is just as effective as handcuffs and nightsticks.
Unless the Supremes reverse their decision -- highly unlikely -- or a constitutional amendment is passed to reverse it -- even more unlikely -- the United States may now have officially left the community of modern democracies. Don't be surprised if, not too long from now, you find yourself being shaken down for bribes at police checkpoints or summarily arrested for espousing the wrong political opinion. These are very scary times, and things usually get worse before they get better. (Actually, they rarely get better.)
On the other hand, America's new Third World status isn't all bad. For one thing, we'll get all those tourist euros from free-spending German backpackers. And admit it -- you probably never voted anyway.
Ted Rall, 37, is author of two forthcoming books: a graphic novel, "2024," and a collection of cartoons, "Search and Destroy: Cartoons by Ted Rall." Both books will be published in May.
Copyright 2001 Ted Rall